- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

MEXICO CITY

These aren’t the hide-in-the-hills leftists of yesteryear, ready to take up arms against the oppressor.

A new wave of Latin American leaders — variously labeled leftist, populist, nationalist or socialist — is redefining politics in a region where U.S.-backed conservative governments spent decades crushing their foes and supporting corporate interests amid fears of inroads by the Soviet Union and its Cuban proxy.

That struggle, fought everywhere from the mountains of Guatemala to the streets of Argentina, has given way to a new generation of politicians as the Cold War recedes into history. This more pragmatic left embraces its own flavor of free-market policies while promising to champion the poor and forgotten.

The wave has carried leftist leaders to power in South America’s largest and richest nations, as well as impoverished Bolivia. Though conservatives haven’t vanished altogether — such candidates remain popular in Peru and Colombia — the trend is likely to intensify with elections this year in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The United States no longer can count on support in international disputes, and once-reliable allies have refused to sign trade agreements that preserve subsidies for U.S. industries.

Standing up to perceived U.S. bullying is a reliable way to win votes, and the White House has delivered a tailor-made issue by threatening to cut aid to Latin American countries that refuse to make U.S. citizens immune to prosecution in the International Criminal Court.

Sorting out the socialists

The election with the biggest effect on U.S. policy may be in Mexico, where the front-runner, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, could end a 24-year run of conservative leadership that has moved the southern neighbor steadily to the right. Like all Mexican politicians, he has reacted angrily to the U.S. crackdown on illegal entry.

Although Mr. Lopez Obrador has good relations with most of Mexico’s business community, he worries some U.S. business interests. A former leader of labor protests whose left-center party absorbed Mexico’s old communists when he was Mexico City’s mayor, Mr. Lopez Obrador was noted for handouts to the poor and big-ticket public-works projects, an approach to governing that earned him the tag many politicians dread: “populist.”

The term has come to mean short-term pandering to the masses at the expense of the long-term good for all. Similar policies left many Latin American nations deeply in debt and fated to boom-and-bust economic cycles.

Then there is “socialist” — a vague term in Latin America. Only Cuban communist Fidel Castro advocates full socialist-style public ownership of the means of production, but Chilean free-trader Michelle Bachelet, Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca farmer, proudly share the socialist label.

Under Mr. Chavez, the state has tried to maintain a vibrant private sector while taking an ever-larger role in managing the economy in Venezuela.

Mr. Morales’ party, the Movement Toward Socialism, is trying for the same changes in Bolivia. Although Peru’s outsider presidential candidate Ollanta Humala says he is a “nationalist,” not a “socialist,” he too would impose greater state control over a free market that he considers “utopian.”

Mr. Chavez and Mr. Humala rose through military ranks. Other Latin leftists came up through Marxist-influenced politics of protest. Except for Mr. Castro, all now seem unified in the belief that private business remains essential to economic growth that can ease the region’s widespread poverty.

That has made for intriguing twists on the old political labels.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has maintained such cozy relations with Latin America’s richest businessman, Carlos Slim, that the Zapatista rebels attack him for not being leftist enough. Presidents Nestor Kirchner of Argentina and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former union leader who has embraced conservative economic policies as Brazil’s first leftist president, face similar complaints.

Both orchestrated early repayments of their nations’ debts to the International Monetary Fund, saving billions of dollars in interest and restoring some national pride. In Chile, the Socialist-led government just won re-election with promises to maintain a fiscal discipline unmatched by the free-spending conservatives in Washington.

A fine line for new nationalists

Although most of these leaders talk about their Latin American identity — a point much in evidence when Mr. Morales was celebrated at his inauguration as an example for all of Latin America’s indigenous people — they also insist on national sovereignty, particularly when it means standing up to the United States.

Mr. Humala, a retired army lieutenant colonel, calls his outsider campaign a “nationalist project” for Peru. Although he says he wouldn’t seize property or limit free speech, he has gained a strong following among voters seeking a tough leader to punish the corrupt and impose order.

Leftist, populist, socialist, nationalist: These can be fighting words, especially when the U.S. secretary of defense sounds off.

“We’ve seen some populist leadership appealing to masses of people, and elections like Evo Morales in Bolivia take place that clearly are worrisome,” Donald H. Rumsfeld observed in a recent speech. He also compared the nationalist, socialist Mr. Chavez to the original national socialist, Adolf Hitler.

The response of Mr. Chavez was quick: “The imperialist, mass-murdering, fascist attitude of the president of the United States doesn’t have limits. I think Hitler could be a nursery baby next to George W. Bush.”

Imperialist? Fascist? Many Hispanics attach these terms to the United States, especially after Mr. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were rejected as bullies for pushing a Free Trade Area of the Americas accord that critics said would preserve huge subsidies for U.S. industries.

Such nationalist responses, plus policies to do more for the poor and a general revulsion against of the bloodshed of past decades, have sapped public enthusiasm for the scattered groups of armed leftists that remain in Latin America.

Mexico’s Zapatistas have refused to give up their guns and masks, and other small rebel bands sometimes attack Mexican police. Peru’s once-feared Shining Path is down to a few hundred rebels protecting drug traffickers and occasionally killing police in the jungle. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia has been reduced, after a half-century, to a small peasant army with scant public support; right-wing assassins decimated its political wing decades ago, and Colombia’s peaceful left has withered under conservative President Alvaro Uribe.

All this goes to show that the old labels are outdated in Latin America. Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, moderate leftist and frequent critic of U.S. policies, has made this point.

Mr. Fuentes wrote that although Mr. Lopez Obrador has been demonized as a populist demagogue, Mr. Chavez is a “tropical Mussolini” trying to pass himself off as a leftist. His recommendation: Latin leftists should follow the Chilean socialist model, which mixes free-market economics and fiscal restraint with poverty-reduction programs.

In most cases, that is what they already are doing. These new leaders have found electoral success by walking a fine line between fiscally sound policies that please international markets and creating social programs for their long-ignored populations.

“I don’t see how we can be opposed to that, if it helps stabilize democratic systems,” said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere studies at Johns Hopkins University.


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